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Film Review: Shouting Fire Will Have You Seeing Red

Wednesday, September 23, 2009 at 01:06 AM EDT

I recently saw the new documentary “Shouting Fire: stories from the edge of free speech.” I must say, it’s well-worth watching. The film is about the First Amendment and free speech in the United States. More specifically, it’s about the perceived endangerment of free speech in the US. It consists of a collection of stories, each revolving around the use and abuse of free speech. There’s even a Facebook page for people to find out more about the film and engage in discussions. There is a clearly political tone to the piece: it’s makers seem staunchly in favour of the First Amendment as an inviolate tenet of American life, to be sacrificed for no one and nothing.

You may find yourself at once attracted and repulsed by this documentary. I certainly was. The story of Debbie Almontaser, for instance, is a great example of how a thoughtful, caring person – who happens to be Muslim – was torn to shreds by the mass media. Although Ms. Almontaser always represented herself thoughtfully and intelligently, she was naive enough to speak in ways that were easily twisted by certain news outlets and anti-Muslim racist groups in the US to appear to suggest exactly the opposite of what she actually meant. Here is a case of good words, utterly in perhaps the wrong context, or with a lack of appreciation for the peculiarities of certain segments of American culture, becoming bad ones. Perhaps Ms. Almontaser was too naive. But it appears quite certain that a significant number of New Yorkers displayed ignorance on a cosmological scale, a streak of malice as wide as the Mississippi River, and a nearly clinical lack of empathy.

The documentary also covers the story of Ward Churchill, who was removed from his post as a Professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder for “research misconduct.” Churchill’s writings are intentionally controversial and inflammatory (check out his titles in Google Scholar). The man is clearly well-educated and has an excellent grasp of English. It seems, then, that he intentionally chooses to write and say things that piss people off.

This isn’t what professors do. Once granted the status of professor, one is expected to uphold a certain code of conduct – at least in matters of intellect. This code includes, among other things, communicating in the most rational and reasonable way possible. And communication is a vital characteristic of the professoriate: knowledge is useless if it cannot be communicated, and professors are the keepers of knowledge. They may be passionate, but they must abide by the centuries old rules of good, meticulous research and its communication. Time and time again over the centuries it has been shown that those who implement slash-and-burn policies of self-expression, writing, and speaking end up being ignored and, often, proved wrong.

It seems evident that Churchill intentionally abdicated this responsibility. The question in the Churchill case is: does free speech trump a professor’s responsibilities? It seemed that the makers of the documentary thought it did. I disagree. Churchill was granted the right of free speech as an American citizen. But he chose to be a professor, knowing full well what the professor’s responsibilities were. (I refuse to believe anyone would subject themselves to the personal suffering needed to achieve a professorship without knowing what they were getting themselves into.) No one forced him to be a professor. He could have gained just as much notoriety and disseminated his ideas just as quickly without being a professor. His ideas would have been no more praised or vilified without his professorial standing as with it. Because it was his choice, then he also had to accept the responsibilities that require, not a muzzling of his right to free speech, but rather a choice of language, tone, and vocabulary that is designed to not be inflammatory and intentionally confrontational. He chose instead to abdicate those responsibilities. This demeans the professoriate. To maintain the status of the professoriate and the trust that others should have of it, he just had to go.

These are just two examples of the stories that are covered in this documentary.

You might love it, or you might hate it. But whatever else, you’ll be glad you watched it.